United 93

United 93
Photo: ©2006 Universal Pictures

Director(s): Paul Greengrass

Writer(s): Paul Greengrass

Cast: Cheyenne Jackson, Jamie Harding, Omar Berdouni, Lewis Alsamari, Khalid Abdalla, Polly Adams, JJ Johnson, Christian Clemenson, David Alan Basche and Ben Sliney

Release Date(s)

Apr 28, 2006 - Wide

“Is it too soon?” For many people, that’s the biggest question surrounding movies made about the events of 9/11.

After interviewing over 100 family members and friends of the victims of United’s Flight 93, director Paul Greengrass ([Bloody Sunday, Omagh]) believed the right time was when the families said, “Yes.”

Greengrass believes that the forty passengers and crew aboard the flight were the first to face choices in a post 9/11 world, since they were aware of what happened in New York and Washington. Adds Greengrass, “Forty ordinary people had 30 minutes to confront the reality of the way that we’re living now, decide on the best course of action and act. They were the first people to inhabit the post 9/11 world-at a time when the rest of us were watching television dumbstruck, unable to understand what was going on. At that moment, those people onboard that airplane knew very well-they could see exactly what they were dealing with-and were faced with a dreadful choice. Do we sit here and do nothing and hope for the best, hope it turns out all right? Or do we do something about it? And if so, what can we do?”

Besides interviewing the families of the victims, Greengrass did a lot to keep them involved and aware of the production of United 93 as it progressed. They were notified about casting and sent photos of the actors portraying their loved ones. The actors met or talked with the families and Greengrass sent out bi-weekly newsletters to tell them about the production’s progress.

Greengrass believed that getting as much information about the events was a very important part of the process. He says that, “What we did on this film was to gather together an extraordinary array of people wanting to get this film right-aircrew from United Airlines; pilots; the families of the people who were onboard, who gave us their sense of what their family member might have done given the type of person he or she was in any given situation; controllers and members of the military; the 9/11 Commission. We had a lot of expertise that, in the end, allows you to get a good sense of the general shape of events.”

To add to the realism in presenting the events, Greengrass cast two actual pilots to play the aircrew, while two of the five actresses playing flight attendants had actually worked for United. The same realism was extended to many of the roles of the civilian and military air controllers.

One of those roles was the head of the FAA’s control center in Herndon, Ben Sliney. Originally asked to be a consultant on the film, it became apparent to Greengrass that only Ben Sliney could play Ben Sliney. September 11th, 2001 was his first day in charge of the FAA command center and it was Sliney who ordered the grounding of over 4500 commercial flights as a preventative measure.

“What I was called upon to do for Paul was accurate,” says Sliney, “in that I would have responded in the way that he wanted me to-albeit it was heightened for the purposes of the film. But it was factual in the progression of the events, since it was developed using the facts from the 9/11 Commission Report. I cannot say I was nervous, and I attribute that to being relaxed around Paul, knowing that he had provided the parameters of the scene and you had the freedom to bounce around within those. I think also, having read the treatment, it seemed to me that the story was about how people in ordinary walks of life-without any guidance from hierarchy or protocol-could all rise to an occasion, which culminated in the ultimate self-sacrifice of the people on United 93. It was focused and clear, so it was easy to do my job on the set.”

Many of the actors involved feel that Greengrass’ attention to realism and detail not only worked to gain the help and trust of the families but also puts the film’s purpose into sharp focus. Actor Christian Clemenson, who plays passenger Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., comments, “I’ve read the transcripts or what people recollect of all the phone calls and what strikes me about all of them is how calm these people were. That is astounding to me. Tolstoy wrote that the aim of art is to state the question clearly-it’s not to provide answers. And I think that’s what Paul is doing with this movie.”

United 93 opens in North America on April 28th, 2006.